U.S. Endangered Species Act Works, Study Finds

Maryann Mott
for National Geographic News
April 18, 2005

The longer an animal or plant species is protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, the more likely it is to recover, a new study says. The finding contradicts recent criticism that the act has returned too few species to full health.

Researchers Martin Taylor, Kieran Suckling, and Jeffrey Rachlinski compared population trends of 1,095 listed species with three related factors: how long the species were listed, whether their habitat had been protected, and whether specific recovery plans were in place.

Overall, the study found that the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is effective, said Suckling, co-author of the study and policy director of the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Arizona. The report is published in the April issue of the journal BioScience.

Three Key Factors

"We were able to identify three aspects that contribute to the act's success: recovery plans, critical habitat [protection], and the listing itself," he said. "Each of those has an independent contribution, and therefore we need to do more of those things."

Not everyone agrees that the ESA successfully preserves and protects wildlife. Critics argue that recovery of only 15 animals in 32 years indicates failure.

Suckling counters that the statistic is not a good measure of the act's effectiveness. "That would be like walking into an emergency room and saying, 'Look, everyone is sick. This hospital must be a failure.'"

A better measure, he said, is the extent to which the ESA is moving species toward recovery.

In particular, species that have had dedicated recovery plans in effect for two or more years showed greater rates of survival and recovery. Recovery plans lay out specific steps that need to be carried out to restore species to health.

Suckling adds that all recovery plans are not equal. Single-species recovery plans, for example, perform better than multispecies plans.

Since 2000, researchers noted, 73 percent of all new ESA recovery plans have been multispecies strategies.

"Wildlife agencies should reconsider the growing emphasis on multi-species plans, or at least take care to ensure that multi-species plans include the same level of attention to the needs of single species as is found in dedicated plans," the researchers write in the study.

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